Featured Post

On reclaiming Purim

On Purim we acknowledge that the people we love are the people whose presence we can never fully see, or know completely

Passover is the holiday of story-telling: the story of the redemption of the Jews from Egypt. God reveals Himself and His presence is clear.

This is one model for the Jewish people: telling the story we know.

Then there is the other model, Purim, where we admit: “we don’t know.” On Passover, God’s providential hand is present; in the story that Esther tells in the Megilla, God — His name for sure — seems to be absent.

But even on Purim there are different perspectives. From one, I see the story of the Jews of Shushan, the ascendancy of the evil Haman and the portended fate of the Jewish people. My response to the story – putting all of the events together – leads to one conclusion: “uh-oh.”

And then there’s the realization: The events that seemed to be leading to the destruction of the Jewish people were, in actuality, leading to their salvation. At the end of the Purim story, I am amazed to see that the elements of the story were in place from the beginning; I just did not see how they would fit together.

But then there is another kind of consciousness on Purim, not of simple reversal, seeing a story of which I can say “oh, now I understand,” but rather, where I acknowledge that I do not know God’s ways, and that I cannot. That God cannot be reduced to simple stories.

In our generation, the worldview of Passover comes more easily than that of Purim. Whether in politics or religion or the day-to-day, we like certainty. We are sure we know why things happen, and reduce events –  no matter how perplexing –  to the stories we tell. We know God and can explain His ways, and with this knowledge we sometimes turn Him into a caricature, a cut-out divine, who can serve as the leader of an ideological movement, a political party or a religious denomination.

But Purim – for us –  may be the time to reclaim not knowing, and the sense that this not knowing may be the most important thing about us – in relationship to God, and even more to the people around us.

So on Purim, we give gifts of foods to our friends, some say through an intermediary, as if to say, “I love my friend even though I do not see his face.” Or perhaps, to show that I love my friend – maybe this is true love – not in spite of the fact that I cannot see his face fully, but rather because I cannot. Because I acknowledge that beyond the person, recognizable and known to me and whom I love, there is a mystery that escapes me. To claim to see fully the face of a friend is to claim to know him completely, to exhaust the possibilities of his being, of his capacity to change, to escape expectations. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says, “Claiming to fully know another person is the most destructive thing in the world.” And so I love another person for what I know, but also for what I know I can never know.

While for the kids, we say that Purim is the holiday of a simple reversal – where anticipated catastrophe turns to salvation – for the rest of us, Purim is where we drink “until we don’t know,” not to achieve the drunkenness of oblivion, but the epiphany of a mind no longer focused on — obsessed with — knowing.

In a month from now, on Passover night, we turn to story-telling, but on Purim, though a holiday for children, in the most adult of insights, we acknowledge that the God we love is the God whose presence we can never fully see, or know completely.

About the Author
William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel. An international expert on the Renaissance on England, he has written and edited books on John Milton and Mary Astell. His Open Minded Torah: Of Irony: Fundamentalism and Love was published by Continuum in 2011; his The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in September
Related Topics
Related Posts